One day, the eighteenth-century Polish rabbi Baal Shem-Tov and his students were standing on a hill when foreign troops invaded their town. From their vantage point on the hill, they were able to see all the horror and violence of the attack. The rabbi looked up to Heaven and cried out, "Oh, if only I were God."

A student asked, "But, Master, if you were God, what would you do differently?"

The rabbi answered him, "If I were God, I would do nothing differently. If I were God, I would understand."[1]

In today’s gospel reading,[2] many in the crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus were galvanized by news of a recent tragedy: Pilate's soldiers had killed some Galilean Jews while they were offering sacrifices in the Temple. Why would God allow this? Similarly, why had the tower of Siloam collapsed and killed eighteen people? Why did God allow that to happen?

Our questions echo the crowd’s questions. Why did God allow two Boeing 737 Max 8 planes to crash, killing all aboard? Why did God allow the slaughter of fifty worshipers in two New Zealand mosques? Why an unending war in Afghanistan? Why cancer? Why any tragedy?

The day had been long and the sun hot. Moses was dusty, thirsty and tired. All day his only companions had been the bleating, cantankerous sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro. He had led the flock from the wilderness to the mountain called Horeb, that is, desert. It was an arid place, of parched ground and few shrubs. His father-in-law said that it was the mountain of God, but Moses simply hoped to find better grazing for the flock and perhaps a spring.

That was when he smelled it: the aromatic smoke of the cassia; incense like he had smelled in the temples of Egypt; incense like his father-in-law used when he prayed to the God of Horeb. Moses shook his head to clear his mind, thinking the smell a daydream. Yet the smell persisted. Slowly, he looked around. He was startled to see a thorn bush ablaze. Yet the bush itself did not actually seem to be on fire. There was fire, but the bush was not burning. Was he daydreaming?

Forgetting the sheep, intrigued and yet wary, he took a couple of cautious steps towards the fire when a voice came from the fire: "Moses, Moses!" He stopped abruptly, still not sure of what was happening.

Again, the fire spoke, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob."

Moses was afraid, his body trembling. He held his head in his hands, afraid he was losing his mind, afraid that this bush really was a god speaking to him.

Again, the fire spoke: "I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered the oppression of the Israelites. He remembered the cruelty of the overseers. And he remembered his outrage and how he had killed an overseer who was brutally beating an Israelite slave.

Yet again the fire spoke: "I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

And Moses remembered. He remembered how the Israelites had turned on him in anger. They did not want his leadership or his help. He remembered fleeing Egypt and finding sanctuary with Jethro. And he remembered Zipporah, his wife, and the good life they shared.

Was this some strange dream, brought on by heat and exhaustion? Who was he, a hunted man, despised and rejected by his own people, to lead them out of bondage to freedom?

"I will be with you. This will be a sign to you: bring the people to worship me here on this mountain."

That is no sign, Moses thought to himself. How am I to convince the people to follow me out here into the desert? And what is supposed to happen when and if we get back to this mountain? Anyway, bushes do not speak. Bushes burn when ablaze. This was not right. Whose voice was this?

"I am who I am. Tell the Israelites, 'I am has sent me to you.'"

That was no answer. But Moses even then knew he would go. The fire's power had reached into his spirit and burned unlike anything he had ever experienced before. Once he had tried to free the Israelites on his own and failed; now he would go to Egypt and try again, this time filled with hope and power from knowing that God went with him.[3]

Moses’ renewed commitment to improve the plight of his enslaved fellow Israelites prefigured Jesus’ parable of the fig tree. Land for Jewish peasants, as in Hawai'i today, was precious. People cut down an unproductive tree to use as building material or firewood. Granting the unproductive fig tree another year, with fertilizer and care, emphasized that God lovingly and unfailingly offers persons opportunity after opportunity to become productive, i.e., to grow in love for God and neighbor.

This Lent, remember, and re-live in your imagination, your failed attempts to love your neighbor and God. Assured of God’s love and forgiveness, let go of those failures. Dare to move the seemingly meaningless suffering and tragedy in life, to pause in those moments when you think God might be speaking. Dare to try one more time to love God and neighbor. May God use our remembering to cultivate within us a new awareness of God's abiding presence, that we might not be barren but that Christ's love and strength might help us to truly love our neighbor all of our days. AMEN.

Sermon preached in the Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI

Third Sunday in Lent, March 24, 2019

[1] Robert H. Schuller, Turning Hurts into Halos (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999), pp. 218-219.
[2] Luke 13:1-9.
[3] Exodus 3:1-15.


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